San Francisco Ballet stuns with chilling contemporary rendition of ‘Frankenstein’

Frankenstein
Erik Tomasson/Courtesy
Max Cauthorn, Wei Wang and Lauren Strongin in Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein.

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The ideal story, whether staged or cinematic, so captivates its audience that they forget it was orchestrated — its dialogue, choreography and plot are so natural that they seem like second nature to its players.

This is the kind of stunning magic that the San Francisco Ballet brings to the stage in their rendition of “Frankenstein,” a co-production between San Francisco Ballet and The Royal Ballet in London as well as an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s seminal novel of the same name.

In this iteration of the classic tale, Aaron Robison, a guest performer from the English National Ballet, portrays the character of Victor Frankenstein poetically, with the exact kind of emotion and naiveté that’s warranted by his actions and experiences.

Frankenstein grew up in a dream world, in a home filled with his parents’ love that overflowed to an adoptive daughter — Frances Chung as Elizabeth — with whom Frankenstein eventually falls in love. Just before Frankenstein can leave for college however, his mother dies while delivering Frankenstein’s brother, William.

Grief-stricken, Frankenstein leaves for university, where he learns that electricity can reanimate lifeless beings.

Overcome with the loss of his beloved mother, Frankenstein tries to bring to life the cadaver that his anatomy class has just dissected — he sews its limbs back together and, as one might expect given any familiarity with Shelley’s novel, he brings the body to life.

The process of electrocution and reanimation could have easily been either underwhelming or corny — SF Ballet’s staging is anything but.

And that’s only the first of several moments throughout the performance in which the lighting, projection and scene design — by David Finn, Finn Ross and John Macfarlane, respectively — are truly spectacular in their reflection of the story’s hope and dejection.

The corpse who becomes The Creature (perhaps better known as “Frankenstein’s Monster”) lies on a table in the center of a classroom brimming with anatomical artifacts, jarred organs and rearticulated skeletons. As Frankenstein charges the electricity to be transferred to the corpse, the stage erupts in pyrotechnic sparks and projected lightning bolts. The table carrying the corpse suspends above the stage, returning to trick Frankenstein into thinking his experiment was unsuccessful — that is, until The Creature lifts his arm and slides like a newborn child off of the frame and onto the floor. He desperately reaches for Frankenstein, who rejects him in disgust.

Vitor Luiz’s performance as The Creature is so gripping, so sinister and so visceral that one can feel his emptiness as he searches for companionship.

In the original novel, The Creature at first seeks a father-son relationship with Frankenstein. Once he feels rejected and evaded by Frankenstein, The Creature becomes resentful and wants Frankenstein to reanimate a once-dead lover for him — after being repeatedly rejected by humans, he feels no one will understand him except a being who was (re)created in the same manner as he was: sewn together and electrically brought back to life.

In this iteration, The Creature’s desire for Frankenstein’s companionship evolves from paternalistic to almost romantic in nature. The two caress each other and dance together in a way that captures the dualistic rage and desire they have for each other. After all, The Creature has been alone throughout its new life, and he craves the same kind of emotional bond he watched Frankenstein share with his love, Elizabeth.

Admittedly, it’s hard not to envy the allure and intimacy of Robison and Chung’s shared sequences together. As Frankenstein and Elizabeth, respectively, the couple shine both technically and emotionally. Robison’s evocative acting is matched only by Chung’s technical precision.

Together, they bring a graceful fluidity to Liam Scarlett’s choreography that lights up the stage.

The three dancers — Robison, Chung and Luiz — bring the kind of natural movement that makes the audience forget their performances were choreographed. Ballet presents a particular challenge to this notion, because it’s hard to make classical technique and choreography look natural — ballet is intended to look effortless but impossible at the same time. Yet these three dancers move as if compelled by their own emotions, rather than those of characters created 200 years ago. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of them.

At first, the music composed by Lowell Liebermann seems tonally out of sync with the rest of the show — it feels light when one assumes should be dark, and vice versa. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes a reflection of the character’s incongruous understandings of events. Elizabeth, unaware of The Creature’s existence, fails to understand Frankenstein’s guilt. Of course, the conflict is catalyzed by Frankenstein’s naive belief that he should bring the dead back to life.

“Frankenstein” offers a breathtaking reimagination of classical ballet as well as a timeless story of unconventional family-making, self-loathing and grief.

Contact Sophie-Marie Prime at [email protected].